Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers: Endgame (**)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – The Avengers, or what’s left of them, are regrouping so they can chase after Thanos and attempt to get the infinity gauntlet back. They were beaten last time, and now that their numbers are fewer, the odds are longer, but maybe they can find a secret weapon to take him down. [Alright, so my summary only really covers the first ten minutes of the movie and I’m going to try to talk in generic terms for the rest of the review here to maintain any surprises (even though virtually the whole world will have seen it already anyway).]

No Spoilers – Just to get it out of the way, you should not attempt to watch this movie without first seeing at least “Avengers: Infinity War.” It is very much a direct sequel and gets right into the action. However, you know how “Return of the Jedi” isn’t as good as “Empire Strikes Back?” I think the anticipation of the conclusion was better than the actually watching the end of the story. Still, I liked that there was a significant plot twist very early on.

Would You Like To Play A Game? – The movie sits at three hours long and I think I know the perfect way to cut out some of that running time. Don’t try to make this a comedy first and an action movie second. There are several scenes that are dragged out, or simply exist at all, for laughs. All the stuff with the cell phone camera. The smashing things in the street part. The Fortnite thing they wedged in there. And so on. They hammered the fat jokes over and over and over for one character and seemed to go out of their way to do so when they should have been concerned with trimming the fat of their own movie. I think I also could have done without the drawn-out ending(s). I can understand wanting to give so much individualized closure, but boy did it drag.

End Zone – The climactic action scenes at the end were still fun, but it felt like a lot more of the same. There were some fun 3-on-1 fights where you see how all the powers can be combined and complemented, or counteracted, and that was great, but not enough heroes got to show what they could do. Honestly, it felt a lot like repeated history and we were watching a lot of what we saw in the last movie’s action scenes.

Biggest Standout – Seeing (or hearing) how many people found the movie to be emotional. Without giving anything away, there were some quiet parts where I could clearly hear sniffles.

Biggest Disappointment – Am I crazy to say that I wanted more carnage? I expected a lot more sniffle opportunities and moments than what we got. Maybe most will see that as a positive, but not me.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – I’m curious to see where things go from here, but I don’t care enough to come back to this particular movie. The main plot here felt like it would have been a side-plot in a better movie. They did a pretty good job balancing the characters and their stories, but the things those characters did was all about fan service and yet I didn’t feel served.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2019
Running Time: 181 min
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writer: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers: Infinity War (***)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – The Avengers have been fractured for some time, all going to their own corners of the globe. However, when Hulk is sent back to Earth, he warns Tony Stark about Thanos and his determined mission to gather up all the infinity stones and wield unstoppable power. Thanos intends to virtually destroy the entire universe as they know it, and the only way to stop him is to quickly reconcile and call upon every friend they can find for an all-out war.

Infinite Characters – It’s all been leading up to this. A decade of Marvel movies have constructed an ever-expanding universe and nearly all of it congregates in one movie (well, two if you count the sequel in 2019). We are talking about hundreds of characters, all with history and backstories established from previous movies over the years. That’s a tall order to fill, but they do a great job of keeping the flow of the picture while integrating characters from different movies that haven’t met each other on-screen previously, and even introducing a couple of new super powered folk. If you haven’t been following closely, it could be daunting to watch this. I don’t think it would really be a problem from a character perspective, but if you’re coming in relatively fresh on this, it will be a little tough to follow along with a couple of the plot points and some dialogue referencing past movies.

Infinite Questions – With that said, even having seen most of the films, I was still confused at times. I’m far from having an encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel movies (my memory is pretty terrible to begin with), but it still seemed like there were a few things that didn’t make sense. Honestly, plot holes are kind of par for the course when dealing with a wide array of super powers, because they need to be artificially limited in multiple ways when they’re in a big group and that’s not always going to make sense. Also considering that these infinity stones grant omnipotent powers, including time manipulation, you can see how that can get tricky and maybe bypass our puny human logic. The movie is still enjoyable despite these flaws, but I was left with unanswered questions and not just because it ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.

Infinite Action – Of course we have plenty of heroes and plenty of powers at the ready, which means plenty of action is on display. Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of emotion as well. Most people know going into this film that characters are going to die. This is a big war, after all. So, each scene has a different weight to it. Watching the fights, and even seemingly normal scenes, has that extra tension built-in as you wait for the unexpected to happen. Thanos is also an extremely effective villain (although one of the questions is why now? It seems like he’s able to start gathering stones really easily and he could have done that anytime he wanted). He’s not pure evil, or at least he’s not trying to be. He actually has more in mind that just the pure destruction of the galaxy’s protectors. That’s a bit rare for a comic book movie.

Biggest Standout – It will be really interesting to see how this all plays out. The last few scenes captured my attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ending ends up being a pop-culture classic in the same vein as “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Biggest Disappointment – Once again, I’m unimpressed by the visual effects. It seems like Marvel is getting lazy or rushed. Too many rough spots or jerky movements in the animation for my liking. The lighting doesn’t match between the foreground and the background. Most won’t find it distracting, but I did.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – It’s a long one, but yeah. Obviously, it couldn’t hurt to rewatch it to prep for the sequel, but it’s also self-contained enough (with a good mix of humor and serious moments) to be a worthwhile quick fix to revisit all of your favorite superheroes in one place.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2018
Running Time: 149 min
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writer: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo

 

Little (2019)

Little (**1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Jordan Sanders is a very successful woman who runs her own tech company and rules with an iron fist. Berating and belittling her employees is the only way she knows to stay ahead. One day, a little girl visiting the office puts a spell on Jordan, wishing that she was little so she couldn’t boss people around anymore. Lo and behold, it works and the next morning Jordan wakes up as a young teenager. Now it’s up to her assistant April to run the company while Jordan is forced to deal with all kinds of “little” things.

What’s Old Is New – I miss the wacky 1980s pseudo-fantasy comedies. Body/age/gender swaps were all the rage for a while, so it’s nice to see that theme revisited. How the transformation comes about is just as hokey and campy as any of those older movies but, aside from a couple conceits made for the sake of driving the humor, the plot stays relatively grounded in reality.

Big Names – Issa Rae’s acting as April is a big part of the movie’s believability. She gets to show off her charm and natural comedic delivery. She also acts as a perfect juxtaposition to Regina Hall. Hall as older Jordan is very heavy-handed and exaggerated. I think that’s an intentional move, because her character is acting like a little child all along and throwing tantrums. That makes the transition into Marsai Martin’s role much smoother.

One Size Fits All – There’s a decent range in the humor in the movie. Sure, you have quite a few jokes that derive from the body confusion and listening to a young girl say adult things, but there are enough jokes that work without relying on that and exist just to squeeze in another laugh. There are also over-the-top musical and dance numbers which are some of the weakest parts and drag on a bit too long.

Biggest Standout – There wasn’t a lot of forced conflict that other, similar movies might have used to pad things out. There’s a quick scene to establish why Jordan has to go to school, but that threat doesn’t come back. The teachers are there as a comedic device and not an impediment. I appreciate that there was no pointless drama or shoehorned villains.

Biggest Disappointment – You know what the endgame is going to be, and I feel the road to discovery wasn’t very effective. Honestly a lot of the scenes in the school were a bit lackluster.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – It’s certainly not a bad movie by any means, so I might watch it again if it was part of a mini-marathon of other body swapping movies. I know that this one got me in the mood to dig out some old VHS tapes.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2019
Running Time: 109 min
Director: Tina Gordon Chism
Writer: Tina Gordon Chism, Tracy Oliver
Starring: Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Regina Hall

Shazam! (2019)

Shazam! (**1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – A wizard, the last of his kind, is desperately trying to find a person who is pure of heart to replace him before it’s too late. Recently the 7 deadly sins have been reawakened. They are living inside a stone that Dr. Sivana holds in his eye, and can be unleashed upon the world whenever he wishes. The wizard finds a young foster child named Billy Batson and transfers his powers and title to him. Billy is now a superhero (and suddenly a very grown man) who needs to find out if, and how, to save the city from these monsters.

I’ve Got Laser Eyes – Unfortunately, I have to say that I have low hopes for the DC Comic movies these days going into the theater, but this one was a good time. It took a little while to get there, but once the hero stuff started happening, the trials and errors of Shazam were enjoyable and the action scenes had some of the best effects I’ve seen from a DC movie. I didn’t mind that there wasn’t a lot of hero vs. villain stuff, because the exploration of his powers was a relatively decent adventure.

And I Know What You’re Thinking – Even though the movie was fun, it still could have been so much better with a little extra polish. The backstories were jackhammered into us with the most basic of situations. The dialogue in the first act was completely laughable, and the plot felt like it was on auto-pilot. There was absolutely no attempt at any kind of subtleties or nuance (especially in the beginning), and that carried into how every character was depicted throughout the rest of the movie. What you see is what you are going to get. Don’t think too hard, just let your eyes enjoy the ride.

And I’m So Curious – Not every movie can get past all of those tropes and stereotypical plot points, but “Shazam!” manages to do so. I attribute that mostly to the sense of child-like wonder of Shazam himself. The way he approaches his newfound powers is exactly what you’d expect from a teenage boy. The over-excitement in each new discovery, the apprehension in applying them in real-world dangerous situations, and the lack of apprehension in misapplying the powers in non-dangerous situations all ring true to what I and countless others would have said and done at that age. That’s where the humor comes from and that’s where the film is the most fun.

Biggest Standout – I think Zachary Levi (“Chuck,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”) was a perfect choice for this goofy hero. He’s campy without being over-the-top; he’s a physical comedian that’s just on the right edge of being cartoony; and he has great chemistry with his co-stars.

Biggest Disappointment – If you’re going to do an homage to “Big” with the keyboard in the toy store, then at least try to wedge in “Chopsticks.” Make it some temporary background music. Have another kid playing it before they enter the scene or something.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – Probably not, but it was nice to see a more lighthearted movie from the DC-CU.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2019
Running Time: 124 min
Director: David F. Sandberg
Writer: Henry Gayden
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer

Captain Marvel (2019)

Captain Marvel (***)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – Vers was found with incredible powers years ago by a race of people known as the Kree. They’ve taken her under their wing and tried to help harness and learn those powers so that she can help them in their ongoing struggle against the Skrulls. Along the way, she’s kidnapped by the Skrulls but escapes to Earth where she needs to prevent them from destroying the planet while also trying to figure out why she’s having such strange flashbacks of a life there that she doesn’t remember.

Power Up – Being an action movie first and foremost, I appreciated the proper spacing of the fight scenes as well as the variety in them. Her powers are limited in scope, but that doesn’t mean she’s boring. In fact, that leads to a bit more ingenuity in the battles as she uses her environments, and mixes her melee skills with some good ol’ fashion energy blasts.

Playing With Power – Nostalgia is a big aspect of this movie, for better or worse. I mean, depending on your age, the ‘90s were a fun time, so it’s fun to look back and remember the pop culture. However, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in using that as the sole means of entertainment. At times the focus shifts away from the narrative and instead fixates on the slew of female-fronted alternative bands playing prominently in the background or scouring the aisles of the blockbuster video. The best uses of the time period are to show how certain things we know about the Marvel cinematic universe came to be or started out, but don’t expect a lot of that.

Power to the People – While I don’t disagree with the sentiments and statements of the movie, it does come off as a very politically charged story. That’s not terrible, as comic books and superheros have a long history of politicization, but something about this particular story feels like it’s speaking directly to this moment in history. I know the subject matter can apply to other time periods in the past and likely future as well, but the pointed tone came off as if it were specifically preaching to a certain demographic about a current issue. I would have liked a more broad stroke approach.

Biggest Standout – This was my first exposure to Lashana Lynch who plays Carol’s best friend in all her flashbacks. In a sea of well-known actors, I thought her performance was arguably the best and I’m interested to see what she does next.

Biggest Disappointment – I could have sworn that Jude Law was already in a Marvel movie, but I guess not. Virtually everyone else has been by now (I’m sure we’ll all get a turn eventually). Anyway, he was pretty annoying in this one.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – Marvel delivers once again with a fun superhero movie, but overall I found it to be good and not great. Aside from the cat, I don’t know if anything will be all too memorable for me and I’d rather watch any potential sequel that might be on the horizon. That or an action movie from the ‘90s to get that nostalgia fix.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2019
Running Time: 123 min
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Writer: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Annette Bening

 

Us (2019)

Us (***)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – The Wilsons are taking a vacation in Santa Cruz. This makes mother Adelaide nervous because as a child she saw a doppelganger of herself on the boardwalk which traumatized her for years. Returning to the scene now, her son Jason wanders off in the same area and that heightens her fears. Later that night, four intruders show up in their driveway that look exactly like them. Adelaide’s worst nightmare is coming true and the family now has to defend against…themselves?

Two – Well, there was a pretty high bar set by Jordan Peele with “Get Out,” and it’ll be interesting to see if the public experiences “Shyamalan Syndrome” here. “Get Out” didn’t have a massive twist, but it wasn’t wholly predictable. “Us,” on the other hand, largely explains the main premise early on and so the movie is more about the journey. It’s a completely different experience and I have to say that it is a slightly lesser one. Even though the major plot points is out in the open, there are a lot of key unanswered questions by the end that border on plot holes rather than pure curiosity or points of debate.

Multiple – With that said, even though the story had some aspects that fell flat when taken as a whole, you can tell there is a lot of care and effort put into the construction of this movie. There is a near Kubrick-level of detail hidden in the backgrounds and set dressing, composition, etc. Peele may not have taken several years to write this follow-up movie, but it is tightly-woven and clearly meticulously planned.

Alone – Despite that, I didn’t fully get what the movie was really trying to say. I believe there is social commentary here, but it didn’t come across when watching it. I’ve heard theories after the fact that make sense at the macro level, but doesn’t fully address those questions I have about certain character motivations and other things. I very well could be an idiot, though. I’ve said that before.

Biggest Standout – I ragged on some of the acting in “Get Out,” but that is not a problem here. Everyone is fantastic, but Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely amazing. That voice could have easily been a joke if anyone else attempted it, but she made it haunting, tragic, and part of a fascinating deeper whole.

Biggest Disappointment – I wish we could have learned more about the doppelgangers and their origins. It’s tough to say more about what I mean without spoiling anything, but it looks like there is a clear, well-defined world on paper somewhere that didn’t fully come out on screen (presumably for time or flow reasons). If this were a TV mini-series, I’d likely get what I wanted.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – Absolutely. Despite any complaints I have, the movie is fun. Each frame is a lot more dense than you initially believe and so watching it a second time will really help find those layers, foreshadowing moments, references, and recurring themes. Looking for all of those Easter eggs would be a blast.

Rating: R
Year: 2019
Running Time: 116 min
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Three Identical Strangers (**1/2)
By Jon Waterman

Summary – In 1980, Bobby goes to college for one life-changing experience and stumbles into another. When he gets there, everyone starts calling him by a different name. After some conversations, it turns out that Bobby is the lost twin brother of Eddy. They were both adopted as babies to different parents and managed to find each other through this unbelievable coincidence. The papers got wind of the story and that’s when David found two faces like his staring back at him. They were triplets that are reconnected and determined to find out how this all happened.

One – Bobby is the first person we’re introduced to and he’s a very good storyteller. He’s instantly compelling. As he talks, the scenes are recreated, which is a relatively standard technique, but there are a lot of minute details in these that really aren’t important and it makes the whole thing a bit weird. I’m sure they’re trying to make the movie a bit more exciting and frantic but it feels like strange filler. The whole movie does at times, but I’ll get into that later.

Two – People of a certain age may remember this story from the early 1980s as it sounds like the triplets were everywhere for a while. They were making the rounds on various talk shows and doing magazine interviews. It’s interesting to watch the various clips (which get repeated) as they go through the circuit, but I liked the home movies and old photographs more. That’s the stuff not just anyone can find and it’s important to see that more personal side.

Three – The big twist in the movie is that there’s something fishy with the adoption agency that split them up. Some of the interviews from the adoption agency workers are so pathetic and I wish the filmmakers did more to contest them on camera. There were some lies told and there are some secrets that I won’t exactly spoil. It sounds like something that could be made up but probably wasn’t. Honestly, the movie needs that extra plot point to extend the story past 20 minutes of curiosity.

Biggest Standout – Even though they all spent their formative years apart, it’s fascinating that they ended up so similarly. It makes you question how strongly genetics might actually determine your path in life.

Biggest Disappointment – There’s a point in the movie where it’s revealed that one of the brothers was involved in some sort of criminal investigation. Heavily involved. It’s a few seconds of screen time and then glossed right over. When you need to add depth and length, this would be the perfect bit to add in.

Is It Worth Watching Again? – The movie was worth watching, but even at just over 90 minutes, it felt like it dragged sometimes. It’s a neat little story that makes for a good 5 minute segment on TV or a fun read in a magazine, but that’s about it. The adoption agency stuff could be its own story worth telling, if the information could be obtained.

Rating: PG-13
Year: 2018
Running Time: 96 min
Director: Tim Wardle
Starring: Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, David Kellman